With an immaculate capital city and lakeside views that are second to none, Rwanda is proof that dynamite comes in small packages. By Johann Groenewald
Upon arrival in Kigali, I was surprised to find a modern and very clean city unfolding before me as we drove from the airport to my hotel for the night. In fact, Kigali’s inner city must be one of the cleanest and most well-organised in Africa. Not only are the highways perfectly crafted with clear and brilliant lines, but traffic lights work and are respected, vehicles stop at pedestrian crossings and taxi’s do not speed! This must be la-la land. And don’t dare to walk on their perfect lawns in the public parks.
The next morning, I took delivery of an oldish Toyota RAV, which seems to be a popular choice for car rental companies in East Africa. At $50 a day I thought it was good value. My wife arrived and we set off towards Nyungwe Forest about five hours south of Kigali.
On our way out of the city, we visited the well-known Kigali Genocide Memorial – a place of remembrance and learning. All I can say about this sombre experience is that it should be compulsory learning for all politicians and that prejudice is a dangerous and slippery slope that leads to good people doing bad things. One million people were slaughtered in 100 days in this tiny country.
Kigali to Nyungwe
As you leave the inner city and reach the outskirts, things become increasingly chaotic on the roads. Traffic lights are rare at intersections and it’s a free-for-all affair where eye contact is avoided and courtesy is a sign of weakness – kind of like the typical African city I am used to.
When you leave the city behind, you enter a rolling landscape of hills covered with patches of land. All along the main roads, rustic but neat homesteads are dotted and there is a never-ending buzz of activity on the roads. The main roads are all paved with tar and in good condition. Between Kigali and our destination, there was not much in the way of wide, open spaces. Roadside facilities simply do not exist in these parts, so if we needed to access restrooms or get our Rwandan coffee fix, stopping at museums was our only hope.
The first thing you notice about driving through Rwanda is that the roads seem to be one long continuous mountain pass that winds throughout the entire country, with very few straight or flat sections. Combine this with hundreds of cyclists, motorbike taxis and other vehicles and you quickly realise that driving over 50km/h would be completely irresponsible, if not illegal. So, do not let the distance of your journey fool you into thinking it’s just a short hop. Driving in Rwanda is very slow with many interruptions. The most dangerous vehicle on the road is a 20-seater inter-town bus. It seems as if they are always late for their next stop.
Also read: Small but beautiful Rwanda
Nyungwe Forest National Park deserves a blog on its own, but in brief, it’s a very impressive rain forest with 13 primate species, over 300 bird species and various hiking trails. The forest spans over 1000km2 and was declared a national park in 2004. Access beyond the main road is by foot and there are indeed many hiking opportunities to explore from either Uwinka or Gisakura offices.
Nyungwe is also a popular destination for chimpanzee trekking. All activities are very well organised and I would strongly recommend a few nights at the Uwinka campsite in the forest. Accommodation around the forest is expensive and generally poor value for money.
En route to Lake Kivu
Our next stop was Lake Kivu. The main road along the lake was rebuilt a few years ago and you can now drive from Nyungwe Forest via Buhinga, Kibuye and Karongi to Gisenyi on a good tar road and easily make it within a day, or even half a day if you hurry.
As you leave the Nyungwe Forest you enter the tea plantations towards the south of the park. The drive towards Gisenyi will take you through many valleys, crossing the rivers that flow into Lake Kivu. Many of the low-lying areas are covered in rice paddies and the trip is supremely scenic. At Kibuye there are multiple accommodation options and it’s a good place to stop if you want to have lunch or just a coffee.
The Congo-Nile Trail, which is popular with mountain bikers and hikers alike, follows an old route closer to the lake between Kibuye and Gisenyi.
In and around Gisenyi there are several accommodation options. The best camping in Gisenyi is at the Discover Rwanda Hostel close to the main beach. They have a huge garden with shade trees which is suitable for vehicle-based camping. Most of the camping options we encountered in Rwanda are not suited to vehicle-based camping as most require you to camp in a tent away from where your vehicle is parked.
We liked the lodges and backpacker options outside Gisenyi to the east. They have a more laidback feeling due to being on the side of the lake with stunning views. There are many options to choose from and most offer some sort of camping.
From Lake Kivu, we drove north via Ruhengeru and then east to Kigali to end off our Rwanda road trip. If you plan to do gorilla trekking in Rwanda, then Ruhengeru is your destination. We, however, chose to do our gorilla trekking in Uganda (at less than half the price) but that is a story for another day.
Also read: Discovering fertile Uganda
How would we rate a road trip through Rwanda? We are used to self-drive travel in Southern Africa where the vast open areas, minimal traffic and lack of people mean you can just get away from it all. In contrast, we found Rwanda to be crowded with people. In between city, towns and the parks, it’s just one homestead after another. Most of the people live off subsistence farming, so if you want to see impressive food gardens, then this is the place to come to.
Produce is moved around by anything from bicycles to trucks. Just watching how cyclists manage to move loads bigger than themselves around and how they come down the hills at breakneck speeds is an experience. No fear is all I can say.
While we did not visit Akagera on this trip, I believe this park will provide more of a typical savannah experience with open spaces than the destinations we visited.
What to see
The country is a collection of hills, mountains with rivers and the beautiful Lake Kivu, which makes for very scenic driving. You do not need to venture off paved roads much and a 4WD vehicle is not required unless you plan to visit Akagera.
A visit to Nyungwe Forest is a bucket-list item as there are not many of these old forests left. Some say that gorilla trekking falls in the same category, but the permit price of $1,500 for this excursion is well beyond the average traveller’s budget.
Rwanda is a small country with good main roads and you can drive yourself around in a sedan. I would allow a week or so to explore the forests and lakes by car and then add on any excursions by foot or MTB. I am still amazed at Kigali as a city and I hope they can sustain this. One person told us to visit the genocide memorial first and then go and explore the country. This way you start with the bad and end with the good.
Have you been to Rwanda? Tell us about your favourite place to visit in the comments.